|Tom Belcher's portrait from Boxiana|
On a visit to the cemetery on 3 April, Alex and John were able to discover the long lost grave of Tom Belcher (1783-1854) - one of the most famous boxers from the ‘golden age’ of English bare-knuckle pugilism at the beginning of the 19th century. Tom Belcher was, for many years, a close friend of Bill Richmond, subject of my 2015 book Richmond Unchained.
It has long been assumed and reported in boxing history books that Belcher died and was buried in his native Bristol. However recent research has revealed that he lived out the last years of his life as a resident of number 19 Trafalgar Square, Peckham, prior to his death and burial in Nunhead. Trafalgar Square was a well-to-do residential area just off modern-day Commercial Way, in an area then known as ‘Peckham New Town’.
“Tom Belcher is one of the most important fighters and players in the history of boxing and it is an absolute privilege and honour to rediscover his grave,” Alex Joanides said. “Many thanks must also go to The Friends of Nunhead Cemetery for their assistance in allowing us to access their archives and cemetery layout plans and plot and grave numbers.
“The inscription of the gravestone is only legible in certain places with other parts of the stone decayed completely away. However, we were able to clearly make out the names of at least three more members of the Belcher family buried in the plot.”
|Tom Belcher's grave - photo by Alex Joanides|
Born in 1783, Tom Belcher was the brother of the great Jem, arguably the greatest boxer of the ‘Golden Age’ period. Although Tom never became champion of England, like Jem, he was nevertheless considered one of the most skilful boxers in the land. The legendary boxing writer of the time, Pierce Egan, wrote of him that: “in point of elegance of attitude and scientific precision … TOM BELCHER, as a pugilist, stands unrivalled”.
During the first 30 years of the 19th century, boxing was the most popular sport in England and its leading exponents among the most famous men in the country. A measure of the fame and esteem in which Belcher - and the sport of boxing as a whole - were held is demonstrated by the fact that he was one of the 18 famous pugilists who were enlisted by King George IV to act as ushers at the new monarch’s coronation in 1821. Before retiring to “country life” in the late 1820s, Belcher was also the landlord of the famed Castle Tavern pub in Holborn for 14 years.
Belcher’s position as a major figure from English social and sporting history has been acknowledged through his inclusion as a character in the acclaimed 2015 novel Death and Mr Pickwick by Stephen Jarvis, which examines the connections between The Pickwick Papers and various facets of cultural, sporting and literary history.
Belcher is not the only famous boxer buried in Nunhead cemetery – the grave of the former champion of England turned painter and musician James ‘Jem’ Ward (1800-1884) can also be found in the grounds.
|Tom Belcher obituary from an 1855 newspaper|